The situation is very bad. Bond (Daniel Craig) is naked in the bowels of a rusting hulk, tied to a chair that someone has thoughtfully cut the seat from. Covered in cuts and bruises, sweating profusely, this is most certainly a low. Presiding over 007, heavy rope in hand, is Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson). He paces back and forth with steady menace, intermittently swinging the coiled end of the rope viciously between Bond’s legs. Bond screams in pain; Le Chiffre grimaces: things are not brilliant.
Of course there’s a catch in that Le Chiffre — as far as Bond villains go — is a brilliantly-drawn bad guy: he’s as desperate as Bond, even more so. The irony of the situation is that it’s Bond who has Le Chiffre by the mountain oysters and the further the scene progresses, the more 007 realizes this. Bond mocks Le Chiffre, who’s pacing becomes more fevered and his questioning more impatient; he sweats with the exertion, driven to the point of being frantic. It’s an amazing scene, perhaps the pick of the movie.
And then it ends. Suddenly, from a side door a trench-coated assailant marches through a bulkhead and shoots Le Chiffre square in the forehead. Bond drifts into unconsciousness. The audience drifts into confusion. Did somebody misplace the sixth reel?
Thus 2006’s Casino Royale, the twenty-first Bond film, was cast adrift. Twenty-five minutes of the movie remained, but having been denied a cathartic resolution to the two hours that went before, the audience stopped caring. A grand final action set piece in Venice was still to come, but when you couldn’t fathom who it was doing what or why, it all seemed of little consequence.
Two years and 105 minutes later the end credits of Quantum of Solace are rolling and a certain sinking feeling is settling in. Quantum is an awful film. Poorly written, absurdly directed and edited to death, it’s the shortest Bond movie in history but somehow feels like the longest. Characters, supposedly the new focus of the franchise, are given short thrift here: Craig gets little opportunity to work his exceptional nuance this time around and the rest of the cast are wasted in undercooked parts, the excellent Jeffrey Wright in particular reduced to having his character Felix Leiter sit around looking as indignant about being in the film as the audience is about having to watch it.
Of course, bad Bond films aren’t rare -– there’s the clunky Diamonds Are Forever, the jaundiced View To A Kill, and the abysmal Die Another Day -– but what sets Quantum apart is the effect it had on its predecessor. Casino Royale is a film that was all but sacrificed for its successor.
Casino Royale, it should be pointed out, was still in many ways a fine piece of film-making. Efficiently directed by Martin Campbell, it was full of pulsating action and meaty characterizations. Bond himself was given a new lease on life by Daniel Craig and in Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre, he was placed against an opponent worthy of 007’s king-killer instinct. Le Chiffre, as a financier to the world’s terrorists, was a figure that commanded both characters on the screen and the audience watching it. He was ruthless and powerful but also possessed real character flaws and, later, a desperation that not only made him all the more dangerous to 007, but all the more distinct from the maniacal villains who had come before.
Bond’s wrestle with Le Chiffre is the central struggle in Casino Royale and the scenes that take place in and around the poker game at the gaming house crackle with an intensity that even outstrips the audacious action scenes. It’s a conflict that escalates with the confrontation on the ship. As the scene was established you could sense the audience leaning forward in their seats, wondering how 007 was going to get himself out of this particular scrape. Of course, he doesn’t; somebody else does. The scene was destroyed and Le Chiffre’s character arc cut short, the writers flippantly wasting perhaps the best villain in the franchise’s history.
Essentially, Quantum of Solace started at that point, with the final twenty-five minutes of Casino Royale dedicated to setting up the following film. It was a move by the writers akin to taking 007’s PPK and kneecapping their own movie. Bond suddenly and implausibly falls in love with treasury official, Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), before she betrays him and he has a shoot-out with a bunch of villains we haven’t seen before.
Sequelism is often used in today’s film-making and while from the studio’s point of view it is hard to argue with the economics of such tactics, it doesn’t typically lend itself to quality celluloid. It’s no secret that the modern movie landscape is littered with bung sequels: The terrible line of Jaws films, the modern Star Wars series of the Matrix debacle. However, with each of those examples you can strip away the at best sub par later movies, pretending that they never happened.
Not so with the transition from Casino Royale to Quantum of Solace. What takes place with these latest Bond films almost moves beyond sequelism and into serialization, with one film making no sense without the other to immediately call upon. The car chase scene at the start of Quantum of Solace would mean absolutely nothing to audience members who hadn’t caught the end of Casino Royale.
Making this serialization all the worse is that the questions created by the noodling tacked on to the end of Casino Royale are not answered in Quantum of Solace. It’s like watching a series of Deadwood, where from one episode to the next you keep waiting for something to happen and nothing ever does. Who’s the secret organization that Bond is now up against? Beats me. What are their aims? Couldn’t tell you. Perhaps these questions will get answered in the next Bond film, but I wouldn’t count on it. Instead Bond battles with a bad guy whom he barely comes face to face with. His superiors are concerned that he’s only motivated by revenge, but they needn’t worry seeing as Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) seems to have no connection to Vesper whatsoever.
Perhaps it would be different if Quantum of Solace were a great film. But it’s not: It’s a spastic, rushed mess that makes little sense visually or story wise. This would perhaps be forgivable in isolation. But when a potentially great film such as Casino Royale is ruined by a sequel that answers none of the questions the first film was sacrificed for, the makers of Bond have done the inexplicable, managing to ruin two films for the price of one.